Mormon Polygamy and Joseph Smith

5136074344_56cd030bc0_o

During the past week, the Bloggernacle (a loose term for the Mormon blogosphere, and by extension, the online Mormon community in general) has been all abuzz about several new articles on the Church’s official website dealing with the topic of polygamy. Most Mormons have had the unpleasant experience of hastily explaining to intrigued or confrontational outsiders that polygamy happened a long time ago, and we don’t do it anymore, possibly followed by the assurance that the purpose of polygamy back then was to care for destitute widows and orphans.

As with most aspects of Mormon history (well, really most aspects of history in general), the truth is something more complicated. Here’s the Cliff Notes version, in case you’re not familiar with the Mormon church, or grew up like me, in a family and church community where these sorts of things were hushed up:

Joseph Smith married over thirty women. Most of these marriages were contracted without the knowledge and/or consent of his first wife, Emma. Several of the marriages were to teenage girls; the youngest was fourteen. Some of the women were married to other men at the time. The women were typically promised salvation and exaltation for themselves and their families if they married him. The whole thing happened in secret, as Joseph was simultaneously denying the practice publicly , and even preaching sermons against it.

Releasing these essays is certainly a step in the right direction. Sticky historical points ought to be acknowledged and talked about. The justificatory tone of the essays, as well as their glossing over of the worst bits, is somewhat disappointing. While there is plenty of discussion of the alleged nobility of Joseph Smith’s motives, there is relatively little about the women involved, many of whom entered into polygamy with him at great personal and social cost to themselves. In fact, most of their names are not even mentioned, which seems to me to be the ultimate insult–they made an incredible sacrifice for polygamy, and we honor their sacrifice by forgetting their names. On the bright side, at least now we are acknowledging their existence, which is a positive step. Church manuals focused on the early Mormon prophets up till now have often erased their polygamous wives from their biographies, sometimes choosing to include only the first wife, and mentioning successive wives only if they were married after the first wife had died. Perhaps this can be the beginning of remembering these women as well.

Bizarrely, the lds.org’s general section on Joseph Smith actually also includes a few paragraphs on his family life, but there is mention of only one unnamed wife (presumably Emma), and no discussion of the heartbreak and humiliation she experienced as he secretly married dozens of other women, many of them her friends, employees, and tenants. The article simply states rosily,

 

One of the later Prophets of the Church told the members, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” This statement came more than a century after Joseph Smith died, but Joseph exemplified this idea all his life.

. . .

Joseph lived the doctrine he preached—that strengthening our families should be an important focus of our lives.”

Hagiography at its finest. A more complete, balanced, and factual approach to Joseph Smith’s polygamy and its devastating effects on Emma and their marriage (as well as a great many other fascinating insights into his life and character) can be found in Richard Bushman’s excellent biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. If you would like to know more about the extraordinary and courageous women who married Joseph Smith, the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog recently did a beautiful, well-researched series called Remembering the Forgotten Women of Joseph Smith. And while I can’t necessarily endorse the scholarship or impartiality of the new LDS.org articles, they can be found at the following links: Main article on Polygamy; Kirtland Period; Utah Period; The End of Polygamy.

I honor my many pioneer ancestors who accepted and lived polygamy out of the goodness and faith of their hearts. I am deeply sympathetic to the women who lived in loneliness because of it. I’m happy for those relative few who because of polygamy were able to break out of traditional 19th century norms for women and become doctors and other professionals while their sister wives were home minding the children (and only hope that the sister wives were also happy with the arrangement). All their stories should be told, and I’m glad we’re no longer hiding them away as if they were a shameful secret.

I’m not in a position to judge or even know about what all of the early women of Mormonism felt about polygamy. It is clear from the historical record that many of them were devoted to the principle of it, and some even found happiness in its practice, although others reported lives of loneliness, neglect, and conflict. Where polygamy really gets sticky for me is in its modern application, and with that I have some experience and firsthand knowledge. Mormons are quick to say that we no longer practice polygamy. However, when Mormons are sealed (married) in the Temple, it is intended to be for this life and for eternity. We tend to take “happily ever after” quite literally, at least for men. If a man gets a divorce or is widowed and decides to remarry, he remains “sealed” to the first wife, as well as being sealed to the second. The expectation, both implied and frequently stated in Mormon conversations, is that he will have multiple wives in heaven. “Eternal polygamy” is also invoked as a “solution” for women who never marry in this life. In a church that presently adulates “traditional” monogamous marriage, every unmarried Mormon woman I know has been told not to worry, because she will be added to the wives of a righteous man after she dies. Not surprisingly, not one of them has ever said that this assurance assuages any of their worries; on the contrary, it’s an additional source of pain.

The idea of eternal polygamy is obviously painful for single Mormon women. However, I can report from personal experience that it’s extremely disturbing to a married Mormon women as well to picture my husband eventually taking other wives. It’s not exactly the “happily ever after” I had in mind when I fell in love and promised my husband I’d be faithful to him forever. I’ve written about this at some length elsewhere, so I’ll just say that it’s extremely important that the Mormon church has decided, however stumblingly and however late, to start being more open about polygamy. It is a painful topic that has been talked and prayed and wept over in female spaces within the Mormon Church during all the time that I have been a member.

In fact, my impetus for writing this blog post was a post on Feminist Mormon Housewives today, entitled A Personal History of Polygamy. “Somehow polygamy comes up,” says the author. “(Why does it always come up when we LDS women talk?)” It’s a great series of snapshots showing the uneasy place polygamy occupies in the collective psyche of Mormon women. Her experience mirrors my own. We cope as best we can, with uneasy laughter and secret dread. We don’t tend to talk about it in mixed company, because at best we’ll be met with incomprehension, and at worst we’ll be served up misogynist platitudes by male authority figures. And I become more and more convinced that this constant specter of polygamy, which permeates even our most intimate relationships and holiest ordinances, is a microcosm of what it means to be a woman in the Mormon Church.

Weirdly, as I write this, I find myself falling more and more into the first person present. I’ve removed myself for the moment, and maybe forever, from the Mormon Church, but this conversation is so familiar, and so central to spiritual questions with which I have wrestled all my life, that I can pick it up in a heartbeat. I eventually discarded my belief in the divine origin of polygamy, but it took me many years, and a lot of anguished questions.

Thankfully, my daughter won’t have to deal with this particular brand of institutionalized sexism, or the resultant cognitive dissonance; that’s one of the reasons I’ve left. Even if she decides to go back to the Mormon Church sometime–and I’ll support her in it if she does, as I will in any religious choice she makes–she won’t have grown up with her parents, seminary teachers, bishops, and everyone she knows and trusts unconditionally justifying the polygamy of the early Mormon prophets as divinely mandated, and telling her she will, or at least might, have to be a polygamous wife herself someday. For the sake of all the other little girls growing up Mormon (and grown-up women like me, who really could use some closure), I hope that these new essays are the beginning of an increasingly honest and open discussion about polygamy in the Mormon Church, both past and present.

photo credit

Heavenly Mother Artistic Contest

Heavenly Mother is, of course, near and dear to my heart, so I was excited to hear about a new art and poetry contest being held in Her honor. From the contest’s webpage:

This contest celebrates the wondrous doctrine of the Restoration that we have a Heavenly Mother that oversees our spiritual development, in addition to a Heavenly Father. The first Relief Society President, Eliza R. Snow, famously penned in the LDS Hymn “O, My Father” the truth that we have “a mother there.” But while in heaven, it is important to remember that our Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother are yet present to us now. They bestow upon us their love, gifts, inspiration, and grace, to help us along our earthly journey. As Sister Chieko Okazaki noted, our Father and Mother shower us with love and mercy. And as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland noted, our “heavenly parents are reaching across… streams and mountains and deserts, anxious to hold [us] close.”

While I am looking forward to seeing the winning contest entries, in the meantime I also enjoyed perusing the contest’s website, which includes a lovely collection of poetry about Heavenly Mother, dating from the mid-19th century up to the present. There’s even a poem written by me, which you can find here.

Wearing Pants

About a month ago, I wore pants to church for the first time (trousers, that is, for my readers who speak British-inspired forms of English). In case you didn’t know, there’s a soft norm in the Mormon church for women to wear skirts or dresses to Sunday meetings. And in case you haven’t heard, there’s been quite a social media tempest during the past couple of weeks after a group of Mormon feminists asked LDS women to wear pants to church on Sunday, December 16 as a show of solidarity.

Having already recently conducted my own private (and unrelated) “wear pants to church” event, I thought it would be an opportune time to share my thoughts here. I had been contemplating wearing pants to church for awhile and had several reasons for doing it, although when it actually came down to it, the choice to wear pants on that particular Sunday had mostly to do with the fact that I was exhausted from taking care of sick family members and my dress pants were clean and pressed, while my skirt was not.

Turns out, though, I liked wearing pants. They worked a lot better for playing the organ than my knee-length skirts (which tend to ride up as I move my feet around on the pedals) or my long skirts (which I never wear on Sundays when it’s my turn to play because they trip me up on the pedals). I was comfortably warm in the chapel for the first time in many months. I got a chance to wear the nice slacks my mother-in-law bought me last year, and which I don’t really have much occasion to don in my stay-at-home Mormon mom life. Wearing pants also made me more aware of how members or visitors might feel who stand out as different at church, whether it’s because of their clothing, marital status, race, tobacco odor, or whatever other reason.

My biggest reason for wearing pants, though, is that I myself am one of “those” Mormon feminists. I know that on the outside I look like a pretty good Molly Mormon (i.e. stay-at-home-mom with temple marriage and cute kids who pays tithing, wears knee-length skirts and shoulder-covering shirts, doesn’t drink or smoke, makes casseroles for funerals, etc.). But inside I see things a little differently from the majority of conservative Mormons in my ward, and any other ward I’ve ever lived in, for that matter. I love to talk about Heavenly Mother. I voted for Obama. I buy both my daughter and my son baby dolls and building toys. And yes, I would be more than happy to see some changes in my  church with regard to greater gender equality.

No, that doesn’t mean I’m writing letters to the prophet or picketing the church office building to demand that he immediately start ordaining women to the priesthood. What I am doing is listening to other women’s stories about how they feel at church, and telling my own. It means that I’m participating in discussions and thought experiments that analyze cultural and institutional problems and explore possibilities to change things for the better.

Anyway, that’s what I do online. On Sundays I dress up in my modest skirt, roll up my sleeves, and do what I’ve been asked to help my congregation run smoothly. In Sunday School,  I try to modulate my comments to make sure that I don’t say anything offensive to my more conservative brothers and sisters. But I am not accorded the same courtesy, and hear offensive statements from members of my ward all the time at church.

I think it’s mostly out of ignorance, because they’re all nice people. So in some ways, that’s part of what wearing pants meant to me. I wanted them to know I exist, not just as the Molly Mormon who knows all the Sunday School answers and signs up to make meals whenever there’s a need, but as myself, with all my issues and doubts and yes, my feminism. I want them to know who I really am, and that no matter what they’ve heard about stereotypical Mormon feminists, I love my church, and want it to be a place where I can belong even if I think or feel or look a little different from everyone else. I want that for me, and I want it for all the other women (and men) who have felt alienated or judged in a place that should be full of the love of Christ and safe for all of us.

And you know what, the members of my ward really made my day. There were no comments about my clothing choice, and I didn’t even see any stares. As far as I could tell, nobody even noticed I was wearing pants. They smiled at me, and talked to me, and loved me just the same as they always do. That might seem like a small thing, but it meant a lot to me. Because really, wearing pants to church was more about who I am and how I feel than it was about trying to impact anyone else. I needed to stand before my God and my faith community and be honest about who I was. After so many times of going to church and hearing things that make me wonder if there’s even a place there for me, wearing pants felt like a way to ask my question out loud and know from the response if I was really welcome. And what I heard loud and clear from my brothers and sisters at church that day is that they, like the Master they worship, love me for who I am and welcome me with all my doubts and inadequacies and idiosyncrasies. And feminism. And pants.

Tomorrow, Mormon women around the world will be wearing pants to church for many different reasons. Some would like to see small changes in culture and policy. Others hope for more substantive restructuring. Some differ from the traditional Mormon mold in their marital status, professional choices, background, lack of children, etc. Others have experienced abuse at the hands of Priesthood leaders. Some have been absent from church for months or years because they felt alienated or unwelcome, and are coming back out of hope that maybe this time will be different. Others because they are new converts, wear what is traditional to their cultures, can’t afford new clothes,  or just prefer pants. Still others because they want to make sure that the people who dress differently feel welcome too.

Some women will wear pants to church tomorrow because that’s what they always wear. Others have been so dumbfounded by the negative and in some cases violent language used to intimidate and demean those who plan to wear pants, that they have elected to wear pants in solidarity.

I hope, for all these women, that their wards are as kind as mine. I hope they have bishops and relief society presidents and fellow members who can look beyond the pants and see the loving, faithful, conflicted daughter of God. And I hope that they will open their hearts and make her feel welcome in a way she’s never felt welcome before.

I’ll be wearing my pants again tomorrow. And if by some amazing chance there’s another Mormon feminist in my ward, I really hope she wears pants too. If you’re out there, I’d love to meet you, my long-lost sister!

P.S. If you’ve never felt hurt by a perceived inequality in the church and would like to understand where people like me are coming from, I recommend this article from Neylan McBaine, who is the associate creative director for the Church-owned Bonneville Communications, the agency partnered with the Church on Mormon.org and the “I’m A Mormon” campaign.

A Mother There: Finding the Divine Feminine, Part 5

In a 1945 essay (“Is Theology Poetry?”), C.S. Lewis remarked, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” As one who embraced Christianity later in life, Lewis had a keen appreciation of how a new discovery of belief can throw a bright reflected glory on the world and everything in it.

The mind, which craves new connections of any kind, takes a special delight in those intellectual connections that carry an associated weight of affection. Who has not noted with pleasure the increased sweetness imparted to a beautiful place by the remembrance of a few precious moments shared there with one’s beloved? How much more, then, might we linger over a place, a picture, a happy turn of phrase that brought to mind some past or promised communion with the divine, assaulting our senses with a sudden tingle of the holy.

Like Lewis, I have been in the habit of finding God everywhere, illuminating everything. Besides amid the glories of the natural world, nowhere does the spirit of God breathe more vibrantly than in literature. The scriptures of various religious traditions are, of course, replete with references to God. But I’ve encountered beautiful spiritual insights in books by authors from Victor Hugo to Friedrich Nietzsche.

Since “discovering” my Heavenly Mother, I find that I glimpse new layers of meaning in stories and books I’ve read and loved for years.  Just like the Father and the Son,  She is everywhere if you know how to look.

Demeter and Persephone

For example, the other day I realized that the mythological story of Demeter and Persephone sheds new light on the Judeo-Christian story of Eve, and on our own journey here in a fallen world. Like Eve, Persephone was seduced by the Lord of the Underworld, beguiled into partaking of a forbidden fruit, and subsequently redeemed.

As a member of a church where we participate in sacred temple rituals, I’ve always been fascinated by the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were a sacred  Greek re-enactment of the story of Demeter and Persephone.

Because the ancient initiates generally kept their vows of secrecy, we don’t know exactly how the Mysteries were celebrated. But we do know that they depicted the story of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, and her mother’s grief and search for her beloved daughter. They also told how Persephone tasted the fruit of the underworld (traditionally a pomegranate), and was thus doomed to remain there until her mother interceded for her, and brought about her triumphant return for part of every year.

For the Greeks, Persephone represented a sort of Everywoman (and Everyman). Participants in the Eleusinian Mysteries saw themselves as Persephone, descending to the underworld, being mourned and sought by Demeter, and then ascending triumphantly to the light for a glorious reunion with their Mother Goddess in a blissful afterlife.

In my own religion, we see Adam and Eve as an archetype for all of us. After being sent down from the presence of God into mortality and born innocent, as they were in the garden, we eventually taste the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil for ourselves, which gives us new understanding, but also causes us to fall from grace.

For us, the central resolution to the narrative is the coming of Jesus Christ, sent by our Heavenly Parents to redeem us from the consequences of our own misdeeds. But the Eleusinian Mysteries also teach me that like Persephone, I have a Mother who waits anxiously, always figuratively seeking after me. For Her, something is missing even in Heaven until my safe return.

The desolation of Demeter at her loss, and her single-minded devotion to Persephone illuminate for me the transcendent love of a Mother who will do anything, find any way to save Her children, and adds a brilliant new facet to my comprehension of the love of God, “which passeth all understanding.”

George MacDonald

George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin is on my daughter’s reading list next year for the homeschool curriculum we use. I read it myself as a child, and was entranced by the story of Princess Irene and her heroic adventures.

Christian commentaries on MacDonald’s books encourage us to see attributes of God the Father and Christ in the wise and ancient great-great grandmother whom Lootie does not believe in and Curdie cannot see. It’s almost amusing to me now that when reading MacDonald I never thought to picture the great-great-grandmother as an obvious allegory for God the Mother too.

And in fact, MacDonald portrayed her with several symbols traditional to the Divine Feminine. For example, when Irene is climbing the stairs of the tower, before we even meet her great-great-grandmother, she hears a “low sweet humming sound” that reminds her of nothing more than “a very happy bee.” Many goddesses, including Demeter, were associated with bees, and the Queen bee is a ready symbol of feminine divinity.

Later, the great-great-grandmother takes her to visit her “chickens,” which turn out to be pigeons. The Egyptian goddess Ishtar, as well as the Phoenician Astarte and Greek Aphrodite, were often pictured with doves and pigeons. The Holy Spirit in Christianity, which is symbolized by the dove, is also sometimes connected with the divine feminine in the person of Sophia, the “Wisdom” of the Old Testament. Great-great grandmother Irene also has her own moon, another common symbol of female deity, which figures heavily in the story.

As a little girl, I didn’t really take in the symbolism at all. But I was entranced by great-great-grandmother Irene. C.S. Lewis writes of feeling a sense of the holy in The Princess and the Goblin, and the book affected me in same way. There was something beautiful and mysterious and awe-inspiring, yet simultaneously tender in that enigmatic woman at the top of the stairs. I recognize that same feeling now when I contemplate my Heavenly Mother, and realize that when I loved great-great-grandmother Irene, I was really loving Her.

J.R.R. Tolkien

And then there’s the immortal father of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. When my daughter asked me the other day what Heavenly Mother looked like, I told her I didn’t know. But I expressed my opinion that she looked a little like me, a little like her, and a lot like Galadriel.

The wise and powerful Galadriel (who although she personifies the goodness and wisdom of the elves is feared and distrusted in the degenerate folklore of dwarves and men as a dangerous enchantress or witch) is not Tolkien’s only Elvish queen with quasi-divine attributes.

The Silmarillion tells the story of Melian, a Maia, or minor goddess, who weds Thingol, king of the elves. Not to wax nerdish on the subject of Elvish genealogy, but their child was Luthien the fair, the elf-maid who wed the man Beren and became mortal. Both here and in the later story of Arwen we see echos of Persephone and Eve.

In The Lord of the Rings, both Aragorn and Arwen are descended from Luthien. Their kinship and the rejoining of the sundered line, as well as Arwen’s fateful choice to become mortal like Luthien, are pivotal to the storyline. Aragorn’s legitimacy as king comes from his lineage, which is not only royal, but divine, through his foremother Melian.

However, Tolkien’s exploration of the Divine Feminine runs much deeper. His beautiful creation myth, the Ainulindalë, tells how Eru the One made a great Music, aided by his assistants, the Valar. That Music was the spiritual creation of the world, and the Valar were later sent down to accomplish its physical creation in accordance with the blueprint of the Music.

Chief among these Valar are Manwë, Lord of the winds, and Varda, Queen of the stars. Manwë and Varda are married, and rule together in the Blessed Land to the West.  In the beginning, another named Melkor was also powerful among the Valar, but he fell into evil, and the Valaquenta recounts of him and Varda that “Melkor she knew from before the making of the Music and rejected him, and he hated her, and feared her more than all others whom Eru had made.” It is no surprise, then, that in his more well-known works, the Divine Feminine has a special power against evil in all its forms.

The elves of Middle Earth named Varda Elbereth, and revered her above all the other Valar, because it was she who made the stars that lighted their way when they were in fear of the evil one. The Elvish hymn to her, A Elbereth Gilthoniel (O Elbereth, Starkindler) appears three times in different forms in The Lord of the Rings. When Frodo, Sam and Pippin meet a group of elves on their way out of the Shire, Frodo is able to identify them as “High Elves” who have traveled to the Blessed Land across the sea, because “they spoke the name of Elbereth.”

Later, Galadriel gives Frodo the light of a star, one of the symbols of Elbereth, enclosed in a crystal phial. It is this phial that Sam uses, in his extremity of fear and danger in Shelob’s Lair, to ward off evil. As he holds it up against the darkness and filth of Shelob, the words of the hymn to Elbereth come unbidden to his lips. His prayer is heard, and the phial flames with the light of the star. Shelob is vanquished and the Quest is saved.

Although Tolkien famously decried allegory, his stories have been widely interpreted through religious eyes. Both Aragorn and Gandalf can be seen as messianic figures, and Frodo’s sacrificial quest to destroy evil is redolent of Christian themes. However, as Tolkien intended, his work has “varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.” Even the very brief sketch I’ve given here is enough to begin to uncover the rich thread of divine feminine symbolism running through Tolkien’s epic work.

I love that one of Tolkien’s roles for Varda (and one of the most important, at least as she is seen by the elves and other people’s of Middle Earth) is in creation–the creation of the stars!  In my religion, the creation of the cosmos is typically seen as dominated by male deity. But like Tolkien, I see the hand of my Heavenly Mother as well as my Heavenly Father in creation.

Rumi and the Beloved

I am a long-time admirer of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. He was a Sufi, part of the mystical movement within Islam. His devotional poems are written from a lover to his Beloved. They are beautiful on many levels, and make perfect love poems even for human lovers. For example, I think Tony still has the card I made for him with this poem:

The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.

Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.

Rumi’s mystical union of lover with Beloved symbolizes the union of the human soul with God. But I like to also read his poems as the love poetry of our Heavenly Parents to each other. If you are unfamiliar with Rumi, the enduring beauty of the Biblical Song of Solomon provides Jews and Christians with their own divine love poem, born out of the same Middle Eastern cultural and religious tradition.

There is a sense of security for children in the belief that their parents’ love for one another will last forever. I think of God’s love not as emanating from one lonely being toward eternal subordinates, but as the passionate, holy affection of two perfect lovers toward one another, which overflows endlessly to fill the immensity of space, inevitably enveloping us in its brightness. We are the children of an eternally happy home, where our parents are together, in love as always, and waiting anxiously to welcome us back.

No doubt these literary echoes of Heavenly Mother are only the tip of the iceberg. I look forward to discovering many more, and hope that you’ll share with me any that are particularly meaningful to you.

photo credit: Demeter & Persephone

A Mother There: Finding the Divine Feminine, Part 4

– Note to subscribers: I accidentally published this when I was only halfway done (yes, my worst blogging nightmare). Please ignore the first post and read this one  –

Up till now, these posts have mostly concerned my own personal journey toward understanding and appreciating the female side of God (for background, see posts 12 and 3). I wanted to start out that way because many of my ideas and beliefs about Heavenly Mother have come through thinking about Her and seeking personal heavenly guidance. Much of this guidance has come through prayer and inspiration from the Holy Spirit. Some of the most beautiful insights came  from my Patriarchal Blessing.

For my non-Mormon friends, a Patriarchal Blessing is another one of those delightful eccentricities I love about my Church. The Bible recounts how at the end of their lives the Patriarchs (e.g. Isaac, Jacob, Joseph) would call their families together t0 give their children blessings of inheritance and lands, along with counsel and guidance. The Prophet Joseph Smith instituted a similar practice, appointing a Patriarch for the Church at large to give blessings to all the members.

Now that the Church comprises millions of members all over the world, each geographical area has its own Patriarch. A Patriarchal Blessing assigns the member to one of the tribes of Israel (either by adoption or through literal descent) and also includes special warnings, counsel, and information about one’s life mission. The idea is that the Patriarch has been given authority by the Prophet to speak to the recipient on behalf of God, and so the Blessing is a divinely inspired guide to one’s life. Almost like an extra chapter of scripture, written just for you.

I was seventeen when I got my blessing, and getting ready to go off to college. I went to the Patriarch’s house with my family, and after chatting for a few moments, the Patriarch invited me to sit down, placed his hands on my head, and began speaking. It’s hard to describe, but as I listened it was as if I could see the things he spoke of unfolding in my mind. I glimpsed my potential as a daughter of Heavenly Parents, and I felt so loved and wanted by Them. Like all Patriarchs, he recorded the Blessing as he gave it, and sent me the transcript a few months later.

I hadn’t read my Patriarchal Blessing in awhile when I started thinking about Heavenly Mother last year, but it occurred to me one day as I was thinking about Her, that She was mentioned in my Patriarchal Blessing. The contents of a Patriarchal Blessing are personal, and not meant to be shared except with close family, so I’m not going to actually quote from mine. And at the time I received it, I had given Heavenly Mother about as many thoughts as the number of times I’d heard about her at Church (which is some number not too far from zero). But I was struck by how She was mentioned in the Blessing just as matter-of-factly as Heavenly Father. I also noticed that every time she was mentioned, Her title was capitalized exactly the same as Heavenly Father’s.

That might seem strange to point out, but it’s actually not. You see, modern Church publications seem to go out of their way to avoid capitalizing heavenly mother even when she is mentioned in the same sentence as Heavenly Father. I am not making this up. For example, here’s a quote out of the children’s manual:

Explain that we all lived in heaven with Heavenly Father before we came to this earth. We are his children. That is why we call him Heavenly Father. We also lived with our heavenly mother and all the rest of Heavenly Father’s children. Everyone who has been born on the earth is a child of Heavenly Father. We do not remember living with Heavenly Father, but we know we are his children because we read it in the scriptures. (See Primary 2: Choose the Right A, Lesson 3: I am a Child of God)

If you click the link, you’ll find that the lesson I referenced has 25 mentions of Heavenly Father, and only the one I quoted for [H]eavenly [M]other. When I read it, what I see between the lines is that we feel very comfortable talking about our Heavenly Father and our relationship with Him. However, the uncapitalized “heavenly mother” thrown in as a bit of an afterthought with “all the rest of Heavenly Father’s children” bespeaks a certain discomfort with the subject, as if we’re not quite sure what to say about Her.

I can appreciate that the disparity bothers some people not at all, and if you are one of those people, your feelings (or lack thereof) are perfectly valid. But for me, it hurts my heart. And so the mentions of Heavenly Mother that I imagine She must have so graciously inspired the Patriarch to place in my Blessing a decade and a half before I needed them, meant very much to me. She’s not portrayed in the Blessing as “deep doctrine” or something “not essential to my salvation” (both common Mormon dismissals of the idea of Heavenly Mother). She’s a plain and simple reality, as real as Her male Counterpart, and equally respected, revered, and capitalized.

As well as utilizing my personal prayers and Patriarchal Blessing in my search for Heavenly Mother, I’ve also consulted some other sources for information about Her. In fact, I’ve looked for Her in every place I could, and come across some really beautiful things. Although various personal and group blogs written by Mormons are replete with personal experiences and insights about Heavenly Mother, most of my favorite resources tend more toward scholarly articles.

For example, BYU Studies recently published an interesting survey of the available quotes from General Authorities about Heavenly Mother, which you can find here. Notable among the conclusions of authors David Paulsen and Martin Pulido is their stated opinion that the documentation that they present debunks once and for all the damaging notion that we are commanded (or even encouraged) to keep a “sacred silence” about Heavenly Mother.

Another fascinating resource is Kevin Barney’s whimsically (or not) named article, How to Worship Our Mother in Heaven (Without Getting Excommunicated). A common reason that Mormons cite for not speaking more about Heavenly Mother is an apparent dearth of scriptural information about Her. In his article, Barney discusses the most obvious places in the Scriptures where we can gain insight into the character of our Heavenly Mother, and learn some surprising things about Her. For example, I had no idea about the rich tradition of Wisdom Literature, both Biblical and extra-Biblical, which has been studied for millenia as an exposition on the Divine Feminine.

Those interested in Barney’s discussion of the ancient Hebrew Goddess may also want to read Daniel C. Peterson’s article, Nephi and His Asherah, published in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. Peterson explores how the theme of Asherah, the Hebrew Goddess of the Old Testament, appears in the Book of Mormon as a trope in Lehi’s dream. He, like Barney, also mentions the Biblical Wisdom Literature, and its connection to Heavenly Mother.

Both Barney and Peterson cite the work of Margaret Barker, a Methodist scholar in the UK who has written extensively on the ancient Hebrew temple. Her writings depart substantially from traditional Christian views, and coordinate remarkably with modern L.D.S. ideas about the Temple. For Barker, the Divine Feminine was an integral part of temple worship in Solomon’s Temple. This page has links to many of her articles (if you don’t know which to start with, I recommend Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?), as well as a devotional on ancient temple rituals that she gave at BYU in 2003.

I have wept with joy over reading some of the articles I’ve linked above. None are necessarily prescriptions for what one must or ought to believe, but they provide much food for thought and opportunity to consider the ways in which we talk about and characterize our Heavenly Mother, and invitations to delve more deeply in the Scriptures to enhance our faith in and communion with God. For anyone else who desires more knowledge and understanding about our Mother in Heaven, I hope that they will prove as nourishing a fountain of light and understanding as they have for me.

photo credit

A Mother There: Finding the Divine Feminine, Part 3

If you’re new to the conversation, you might want to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.

My next thoughts about Heavenly Mother have a lot to do with our conception of the afterlife, and how we will live there. Mormons have been described as having “the biggest heaven and the littlest hell.” One of the things I love about my faith is that it describes a God whose boundless mercy includes many people denied salvation by the tenets of some other faiths.

The Mormon idea of heaven is expansive, nuanced, and mind-bogglingly beautiful (in my opinion. Anyway, it tops my list of ideal future destinations). Among other things, it makes provision for groups sometimes relegated to heavenly disenfranchisement, such as people who have lived and died never even having heard of the Gospel, those of other faiths (non-Christians/non-Jehovah’s Witnesses/non-Muslims/etc.),  and unbaptized babies.

In fact, Mormons don’t really believe in hell at all, at least not in the conventional sense, as a miserable dwelling eternally populated by multitudes of wicked people. We believe most everybody who has ever lived on earth will go to one of three “Kingdoms of Glory.” In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote:

There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead.

KJV, 1 Corinthians 15:40-42

Joseph Smith expounded on this rather tantalizing and cryptic passage in an 1832 revelation canonized as Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants, expanding it into a comprehensive description of what to Mormons are known as “The Three Degrees of Glory”; in other words, Heaven. While he does mention fire and brimstone for the very few who absolutely insist upon it by denying the Holy Ghost (an esoteric and extraordinarily difficult feat, evidently not even attainable by most people), every one else will enjoy a beautiful and happy existence, and some measure of the presence of God. The three degrees of glory allow for variation in what we choose to become, but a generous God has prepared a house with “many mansions,” and one of them is just the right fit for you.

However, to achieve one’s full potential and actually grow up to be like God (as I discussed in Part 2) rather than simply living in heaven, one needs to be married. How interesting is that? The highest degree of heaven can only be reached together. Apparently, there is something transcendent about uniting oneself completely with another person. As far as I know, this idea of marriage as the ultimate vehicle to human (and divine) perfection is an exclusively Mormon idea (again, correct me if I’m wrong, since I do find this subject fascinating).

Mormon marriage “for time and all eternity” is called sealing, and must be solemnized inside a temple. It can be performed (as Tony’s and mine was) simultaneously with legal marriage. But if you’re already married through a civil ceremony (or a different religious one for that matter), you can go to a temple later and be “sealed” to your spouse. Even if you’re already dead, your practicing Mormon descendant can take your name to a temple and seal you to your spouse by proxy. In fact, this is the reason we’re always researching our ancestors and doing “baptisms for the dead,” which are then followed by sealings for the dead. We want them (and everyone who’s ever lived on earth, for that matter) to have the same opportunity to accept Christ, be married forever and become like God.

While we’re on the subject of marriage, I’ll confess that I was one of three people on the planet who didn’t watch the Royal Wedding last year. So a few weeks ago, when the Royal Anniversary came around, I thought I’d celebrate by catching up. It was an absolutely lovely wedding, and I enjoyed every minute of it, especially the beautiful John Rutter choir number. I was especially struck by something the Bishop of London said during his sermon: “In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and the groom as king and queen of creation.” From a Mormon point of view, it would be a very literal sense. Just as every baby is a god in embryo, every wedding carries the potential of a divine, eternal union.

For me, that idea has two implications. First, my most powerful image of God is as a loving Mother and Father. For most of my life, I imagined God as my Father. He was the eternal listener, who always had time for me, and always approved of me, whether I approved of myself or not. It’s my most familiar and automatic response to reach out to Him in my mind when I feel lost or overwhelmed.

When I “discovered” I had a Mother too, it was as if I’d suddenly raised a crystal to my eyes and seen the pure, white familiar light burst into rainbows. I didn’t know what to do with the sudden secret I had inside. I felt as if God had been reborn inside of me, like a delightful new friend I’d never met, who nevertheless seemed somehow familiar. I wasn’t sure what to do with Her, or even how to picture Her. What is a goddess like? I still feel like I’m newly in love with Her, and making up for lost time. But now I picture them together, standing side by side, sometimes laughing, sometimes weeping and holding each other close, as they look down on me and the rest of the world they’ve created. My conception of God has become a full and beautiful balanced unity of deep and equal love; the ultimate happily-ever-after. I feel like I belong to my Heavenly Parents in a way I never felt before, as if some missing piece of the puzzle has finally clicked into place. My relationship with God has deepened immeasurably.

And there’s a second implication to really seeing God as a married couple. The way we see our Heavenly Parents and their perfect marriage will be mirrored in our own marriages here on earth, not to mention in other relationships between men and women. From this perspective, the fact that we don’t talk about Heavenly Mother becomes troubling on a new level, and the questions I asked in my last post gain added meaning, becoming starkly relevant to our view of the relationship between the sexes. I’ll repeat them for you here:

If we worship our  Father, what could be inappropriate about worshiping our Mother? Is there something inherent about being female that makes Her unworthy of worship? Is She a lesser being, not quite as divine as the Father, a sort of demi-goddess? Or not divine at all? Is She perhaps just some lucky woman who ended up married to God?

The strangeness of our silence about Heavenly Mother is brought home to me when I read The Family: A Proclamation to the World, a statement on the importance of the nuclear family, presented to the Church by President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1995. While never officially canonized (except by certain members, who glue it into their scriptures), this document has become central in the discourse and focus of the Church. It is often quoted during General Conference, as well as over the pulpit in our weekly local services and Sunday School. We’ve been encouraged to display it in our homes, and I have my copy duly framed and hanging in my living room. A few years ago, my mom even led a family challenge for us all to memorize it.

You can read it in its entirety via the link I posted above, but I’d like to talk specifically about a couple of key ideas. First, it does discuss gender roles. For example, it proclaims that “Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” In that light, isn’t it strange that while we talk all the time about our loving and nurturing Heavenly Father, we never mention our loving and nurturing Heavenly Mother? And if the presence of mothers is so important to the development of children, why is our Heavenly Father constantly portrayed as a devoted but single parent, doing all the nurturing on His own? Why have we been told (also by President Hinckley) that it is “inappropriate” to speak with our Mother? These are not questions I ask lightly. They are important not only in my life now, and my relationship with God, but also for how I imagine my eternal destiny.

Here’s the male side of the Proclamation: “fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.” Although surely unintended by the leaders of the Church, that little word “preside” causes problems in the families of some members, who view the husband as the “President” of the family, and the wife as just a counselor (or perhaps the subordinate Relief Society President). For example, my mother-in-law informed my husband that it means when he and I are contemplating an important decision and have a difference of opinion, he’s entitled to make the final decision himself, regardless of what I think.

It seems that this same attitude of ultimate male authority must inform some people’s idea of God. After all, the structure of our church is completely hierarchical, and dominated by males. We have the prophet, his two counselors, and the quorum of the twelve, all male. This sort of structure is repeated on a local level, with a stake president, his counselors, and twelve men of the high council presiding over several wards, which are in turn presided over by a male bishop and his two counselors.

It’s understandable that many members extrapolate this model onto the family, and equate a husband/father with a prophet, stake president, or bishop, giving the “man of the house” authority over all the members of his family, including his wife. Perhaps if we were to speak of a Heavenly Mother, equal in authority and power to Heavenly Father, and fully half of the supreme power in the universe, we might have a healthier model upon which to base a marriage of what the Proclamation also describes as “equal partners.”

In the sealing room of every Mormon temple, two huge mirrors hang opposite one another. The bride and groom can stand together and see their reflections going on and on forever in both directions. One set of reflections flows on into the future, a promise of children and future generations. The other set flows backwards, symbolizing parents, grandparents, and ancestors all the way back to the archetypical Adam and Eve, and then beyond that to our Heavenly Mother and Father. Sometimes I picture Them like that, standing and looking into the mirrors themselves on some long ago day when they first promised forever to one another. And I like to think that someday, by contemplating Them and Their eternal union, we can learn to mirror its divine perfection in our own relationships.

photo credit

Tintin, Bees, and Dance of the Dissident Daughter

Tintin: The Complete CompanionTintin: The Complete Companion by Michael Farr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This delightful and informative volume is obviously a labor of love from a fellow Tintin fan. In his acknowledgments, Farr fondly remembers his mother teaching him to read at the dining room table with Tintin. Little wonder that he grew up to be a Tintinologist and produce this wonderful treatise.

The book is beautifully laid out, and spends several pages reliving and analysing each of the Tintin books, focusing on narrative development, contemporaneous history, and other pertinent influences. I especially loved the many photos reproduced from Herge’s files. He collected photos on any subject that might come in handy in future volumes, which is one of the reasons the comics are so remarkably accurate in their portrayal of everything from a certain make of rifle to a pre-Columbian wooden statue.

I’ve adored Tintin since childhood, and after reading this book, I  appreciate even more the exhaustive artistry and unrelenting creative vision that went in to making Tintin such a classic.

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman's Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred FeminineThe Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine by Sue Monk Kidd

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has been recommended to me multiple times, and I finally got around to reading it this Mother’s Day.

It’s definitely a book that needed to be written, and I gave it five stars because I don’t know of another book that addresses this important subject as well as The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (If you do, please tell me, because I would love to read it). Kidd’s description of her awakening to how male-centric her religion was really struck a chord with me. As a Mormon, I found it fascinating that many of the Christian doctrines she cites (such as the maligning of Eve, or the lack of a female divinity) are actually rectified in my own faith. But on a practical level, in spite of our more egalitarian doctrines, the attitudes of many church members toward women (and some of the things I hear from the pulpit) are the same as Kidd describes.

I didn’t connect as much to the second half of the book, where she describes all the interesting things she did to connect with the Sacred Feminine. I don’t really feel a need to do Jungian psychoanalysis or make string mazes through the forest. She also seemed to shift from wanting to connect with God to connecting with the divine within herself. They’re certainly related, but I thought she conflated them, perhaps excessively. Still, many of her suggestions (e.g. meditation, sacred space, making a shift from living vicariously through others) are helpful. Also included in the Notes section is a sort of informal bibliography, which I will definitely be checking out for further reading.

The one bizarre thing is that Kidd appears to assume that every woman’s journey will be virtually identical to hers. She is constantly extrapolating her own experience, even very specific bits of it, and prognosticating that every woman will go through a similar moment. I actually did find myself relating to her experience in many, many particulars, but I can see how someone might find her constant assumption that she is a sort of archetype for “everywoman” annoying.

All in all, an enlightening book, and definitely worth a read if you have any interest at all in the Sacred Feminine.

The Secret Life of BeesThe Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I checked this one out because I’d just read Dance of the Dissident Daughter, by the same author. While Dance is a memoir and Bees is a novel, I almost felt like I was reading the same book, written in two different forms. A motherless girl in 1960’s South Carolina finds strong female role models, a place to belong, and peace with her past. I really loved the way Kidd wove the theme of bees and beekeeping throughout the book, constantly unfolding lovely new metaphors. A very enjoyable read, with some hidden nuggets of wisdom.

View all my reviews

photo credit

A Mother There: Finding the Divine Feminine, Part 2

I hope all of you mothers had a lovely mother’s day. Before Church, my husband made me breakfast, and my kids gave me cute cards. At Church, I substitute-taught a class of a dozen rambunctious eleven-year-olds, and reflected that mothering my own two children is actually pretty easy by comparison. After Church, I had a nice videochat with my mom, and then Tony took the children to visit a lonely lady in the ward, and I laid out my blanket on the lawn and read The Secret Life of Bees. Lovely.

And yes, I also spent  some time thinking about my Heavenly Mother, and what I would say in this post. It’s funny, I didn’t realize until I became experientially aware of Her reality that there is a gigantic hole in the way I had been imagining God. All of a sudden, in the midst of a deluge of male pronouns in scripture and hymn and church discourse, all I could hear was a deafening silence about the feminine side of God.

To explain the powerful impact on me of that silence (indeed, that apparent absence), it might be helpful if I sketched for you a bit of Mormon theology. Like most of the rest of the Christian world, we believe in The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost. However, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught a version of the Trinity that was a little different from mainstream Christianity’s; namely that the three members of what Mormons like to call “The Godhead” are completely separate individuals, just as any three human beings are separate individuals. Further, he taught that the Holy Ghost is a spirit, but God the Father and Jesus Christ have glorified, perfected, and immortal physical bodies (yes, complete with parts and passions).

Joseph Smith described the spirits (souls) of human beings as the literal offspring of God. He taught that we lived with God as spirits before we were born, and that we are here on earth so that our spirits can be clothed with a physical body and we can gain experience and learn to choose between good and evil.  To top it all off, Joseph taught that God the Father had at one time lived a mortal life like Jesus, and like us. Our ultimate goal is to return to our home with God and eventually be not only with Him, but also like Him. A later prophet of the Church, Lorenzo Snow, put it like this: “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.”

Radical, I know. But also transcendently inspiring, at least to me. Just like our children look forward to growing up to be like us, we look forward to growing up to be like God. And the trials, pains, and joys of human life are the best possible preparation we could have as we progress toward that eternal goal. As Nietzsche once said (although he might be startled to find his words being used to expound on Mormon theology), “The gods justified human life by living it themselves—the only satisfactory theodicy ever invented.”

To continue my Mormonized version of Nietzsche’s admirable thought, when we view our life in light of Snow’s couplet, God really does become a “transfiguring mirror”; As we look deep into what He is, we see what we can become, and are transformed. In fact, Joseph Smith went on to say, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”

Somehow, the irony of reading that last statement as a woman took thirty years to really strike me. Who is this God I’m supposed to comprehend and someday become like? If gender is an eternal characteristic (which my religion vigorously affirms is the case), how can I possibly comprehend myself without comprehending the God(dess) who is my Eternal Mother?

Over the past year or so, I have contemplated those questions over and over, mostly with myself and my husband, because like I said, we barely ever talk about Heavenly Mother at church. A few weeks ago, when the Relief Society President (leader of the women’s organization) solicited anonymous questions for the Stake President to answer at a special meeting during Stake Conference, I thought I’d give it a shot. So on my little slip of paper I wrote, “Tell us everything you can about Heavenly Mother,” and then folded it up and dropped it in the box.

At the very least, I thought it might inspire an interesting class discussion. Sure enough, a few weeks later I sat in our Relief Society meeting listening as the Stake President answered a list of truly random questions. When he got to mine, he said he wished he’d had time to research the topic, but had been very busy. Despite lack of research, he was able to repeat off the top of his head the oft-heard idea that we don’t really talk about Her because “Heavenly Father has put her on a pedestal and wishes to protect her from anyone who might profane her name.” The woman sitting next to me chimed in that perhaps we don’t talk about Heavenly Mother because if we talked about Her too much, we might start worshiping Her, “like the Catholics have with Mary.”

I find both of the above-referenced ideas fascinating. Neither is a real doctrine of the Church, but both are widely held. The first, which is colloquially known in the Church as the idea of “sacred silence,” paints a sort of traditional Victorian picture of an idealized woman. I suppose we could stretch the interpretation to mean that Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother agreed together that She should not be spoken of by Her children (although being a mother myself, I would find that an odd move for a divine mother to make). However, people putting forth this idea invariably cite the Father as the only actor, who has decided to protect Her by rendering Her invisible to Her children. No mention is ever made of how She might feel about the situation, let alone the idea that She might participate in decision making of this sort. It is odd to me that this is our picture of the essence of exalted womanhood.

The second idea disturbed me even more, though. The underlying premise seems to be that there is something unthinkably wrong about anything worthy of worship being female. I see no logical basis for this idea. If we worship our  Father, what could be inappropriate about worshiping our Mother? Is there something inherent about being female that makes Her unworthy of worship? Is She a lesser being, not quite as divine as the Father, a sort of demi-goddess? Or not divine at all? Is She perhaps just some lucky woman who ended up married to God?

In conjunction with this idea, Mormons sometimes bring up the fact that pagan fertility cults (presumably involving worship of a divine female figure) are roundly condemned in the Bible. I heard someone speculate the other day that perhaps the danger we’re trying to forestall when we avoid talking about Heavenly Mother is the impulse to turn her into a fertility cult. There seems to be a sense that worshiping a divine female figure tends automatically toward corruption and perversion. This is disturbingly reminiscent of Medieval beliefs about the inherent impurity of women’s bodies and the supposed danger of their corrupting influence on men, just as Eve had, according to their theology, “ruined” Adam. In a church that honors Eve and views her decision to partake of the fruit as one of the most important and wonderful acts in the history of the world, I find it strange that we would retain these ideas about womanhood.

While none of the above ideas are officially sanctioned by the Church, the functional silence about Heavenly Mother serves to reinforce them. I know that there are a lot of women in the Church (and men too) who aren’t bothered by the current lack of information and emphasis on Heavenly Mother. I’m not seeking to invalidate their experience, or tell them they ought to be bothered when they’re not. But for me, the connection between Her identity and my identity as a woman is too powerful to ignore.

One day, while pondering again Joseph’s statement about comprehending the nature of God, the realization hit me forcefully that until I recognized the feminine as fully divine, it was impossible for me to recognize the feminine (myself!) as fully human.

Next time I’ll discuss my thoughts on how our ideas about marriage tie into Heavenly Mother. In the meantime, I’m curious about how you feel. Is the idea of a divine feminine important in your faith? Do you feel a personal connection to a female God? Or is it something for which you don’t really feel a need?

photo credit

A Mother There: Finding the Divine Feminine, Part 1

This is a post that has been germinating inside of me for a long, long time, and the week of Mother’s Day seemed like the perfect moment to let it flower.

As you may or may not know, the Mormon conception of God encompasses both a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother. However, for whatever reason, we almost never talk about our Heavenly Mother.

The relative absence of my Heavenly Mother didn’t really bother me much growing up. In fact, when I thought of Her at all, I thought about Her as a sort of special, beautiful secret, and something I found aesthetically pleasing about my religion. To me, She was more of an idea than a real person; certainly She didn’t seem as “real” as God the Father or Jesus Christ, whom I heard about every week at church, and with whom I was encouraged to develop a personal relationship.

Fast forward to approximately a year ago, when I was living in Tunisia. We’d had a serious marital shakeup, then a couple of difficult financial years, and several international moves. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. So for a couple of months, every morning I would walk down to the beautiful Hammamet beach, sit on the shore above the water-line, and just be still, looking out at the crystal blue sea and sky. After a while, I started to bring along a notebook so I could write down my feelings and try to sort through them.

And then one day I began to write poetry. I remember learning in a philosophy class in college that the Greeks believed poets had a kind of madness sent from the gods, which enabled them to write things that they did not know or understand themselves. That’s how poetry has always been for me. I am often surprised at the things that flow from my pen. I read my own poetry in the same way I read other people’s, because both tend to yield layers of meaning I didn’t know existed on the first reading (or writing, for that matter).

Much of the poetry I began to write on the beach in Hammamet dwelt on religious and Biblical (or Book of Mormon) themes. Among others, I wrote about Eve, Mary, Jesus, Noah, Lehi, and Sarah (with whom, for obvious reasons, I’ve always felt a kinship). I felt how their struggles and triumphs mirrored and illuminated mine. And then one day it happened. A divine female presence appeared in one of my poems.

After I’d written it down, and then polished up the rhyme, meter, and internal assonance and consonance till every word was perfect, I just sat and stared at it. There She was, unaccountably, but undeniably. I hadn’t set out to write a poem about Her. She had just appeared, unbidden, like a rare pearl unexpectedly washed up on the sand at my feet.

It was a strange experience for me. The absence of discussion about Heavenly Mother at church is nearly absolute, and many members believe the subject to be actually taboo. I felt I’d done something unwittingly subversive. I mean, we have this one hymn we sometimes sing (called, ironically, O My Father) that mentions Her, and occasionally a speaker will throw out the phrase “heavenly parents.” But a cursory search for “heavenly mother” on lds.org yields exactly 15 results. For perspective, a similar search for “heavenly father” comes up with 14,226.

This is the climate I was raised in, and I think it’s a fairly typical experience for Mormons. Who writes poems about Heavenly Mother? The people who run Sunstone Magazine, and complain that women never pray in General Conference, and agitate for the removal of the “gender ban” on the Priesthood, that’s who. Not I.

But somehow, I had done it. And I hadn’t just done it. I had read it, and I had felt it, and there She was, no longer just an idea, but suddenly as disconcertingly real as God the Father, as if She had somehow breathed life into Herself.

I didn’t quite realize it then, but my life changed that day. My eyes were opened to a world I never knew existed before.

Ten years ago, I spent a year and a half doing nothing but teaching people about God, and watching them awaken to the delight of knowing Him. But I never knew how it felt to really yearn and wonder if God was there, until the truth sank deep into my heart that “God” means not only my much-loved Father, but also a Mother I was only beginning to know.

That awakening has been the beginning of a journey that has changed not only the way I see God, but the way I see myself and everything else. There’s lots more I have to share, but the rest will have to wait for a future post. In the meantime, if it accords with your belief system, I invite you to spend a moment this Mother’s Day honoring your Heavenly Mother in whatever way seems most meaningful to you.

photo credit